Memoir

How Theme Parks Kept My Globetrotting Family Grounded

Through diplomatic placements that sent us all over the world and a scandal that changed everything, we always returned to Disney World.

How Theme Parks Kept My Globetrotting Family Grounded

On all sides of me were hordes of people grouped together by their family-reunion branded paraphernalia. One family had it all: hats, T-shirts, buttons and backpacks. Everything they owned was embossed with their last name and family catchphrase. I looked at my parents, my sister, my brother, his two kids, and his girlfriend, and thanked some higher power that we had nothing on that said “The Warner Family: We Put the Fun Back in Dysfunctional.”

Before this family trip to Universal Studios, we’d also visited Disney World, Disneyland, Hershey Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Kings Dominion, SeaWorld — in both San Diego and Orlando — five different Six Flags locations, countless side-of-the-road water parks (ever heard of Weeki Wachee?), and even an amusement park on Prince Edward Island named after Anne of Green Gables’ grown-up home, Rainbow Valley.

My parents were both U.S. diplomats, but they were a unique kind, a milder form of something known in our Foreign Service family as “disaster junkies.” “We weren’t true disaster junkies,” Dad always corrects me. “We weren’t living in a tent in a refugee camp or anything.” But my parents did favor hardship posts, which in diplomatic language means a tour where the living conditions are difficult due to climate, pollution, crime or terrorism.

When I was just 3 weeks old, I boarded my first plane, in Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Harare, Zimbabwe. “The locusts,” Mom says when I ask her what she remembers most about Zimbabwe. Every few months the locusts would blow through Harare like the Santa Ana winds. At night, every light in the house had to be blacked out so that the insects wouldn’t be seduced into our home — even the digital alarm clocks had to have their batteries removed. All through the night the locusts would thump, like a heartbeat pulsing against the walls, straining in vain to enter our home. Mom describes how she laid awake next to Dad beneath the mosquito netting that encircled their bed and listened to the night with her whole body. What my parents didn’t understand was how much they were like the locusts, blindly bashing against a target they could only desire abstractly, in an ever-fruitless attempt to find home.

Later moves brought us to Mexico, Kenya, Bolivia and Ethiopia. I’ve also lived in cushier places like Ireland, Austria, Slovakia and my parents’ final reward post, Canada. When I was a teenager, Mom was stationed in Bosnia just after the war. She wasn’t allowed to bring dependents with her because the country was still filled with undetected landmines. In between stays in these countries we would go back to the States for the summer — a requisite vacation known as “home leave.” It was then that we would go to the amusement parks. Mom tells me, “We weren’t that different a family, everyone goes to Disney World.”

We were a different family though: None of these countries belonged to us, and we didn’t belong to them. We were our own country. We gained visa after visa, but our passports always said Warner. Like those undetected Bosnian landmines, we were also waiting for someone to misstep and blow us all to smithereens. The explosion happened when I was 11 and it wounded our family forever. From that year on, amusements parks were no longer a typical American vacation, but instead a form of triage — a balm, that if applied regularly, might give our family a better chance at survival.

Before we walked into Universal, I watched Mom stroke my nephew’s hair and ask, “So is this going to be the best day of your life?” His enthusiastic reply wasn’t merely what all grandmas want to hear — it was especially important for my mother, a woman who thinks the best way to heal a wound is to go to the place where all families’ “dreams come true.” Her grandchildren were a second chance to get it right, and this time Universal Studios, or Disney World, or wherever, had better work.

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Every morning in Nairobi, we’d get up and call into the embassy on a two-way radio, alerting the Marines that we’d made it safely through the night. Every American family did this. Us kids would beg to be the one allowed to use the handheld speaker and scream, “Good morning, Nairobi! This is Eagle 721.”

Outside, surrounding our house, was an electric fence, and behind that a wall, 25 feet high. Sprinkled on top, like confetti on a cake, were the ends of broken bottles. In the sunlight, the glass threw rainbows into the garden. It was years before I realized the purpose of these bottles — to prevent intruders from climbing over the wall. Back then, I thought they were for decoration.

The New York Times ran a story in their World News section with the headline, “In Nairobi, Car-Jacking Is a Bitter Fact of Life.” The article referred to Nairobi as “Nairobbery,” as it had been dubbed by residents, and cited the carjacking murder of United Nations official Michael Rietzel-Nielsen. Nairobi was then declared so dangerous the United Nations almost pulled its entire East Africa operation out of Kenya.

My father owned a gun — a shotgun locked away in a closet in their bedroom. Everyone in the family knew about the gun, and we also knew that it was against embassy policy to have brought it into the country. The gun was our family secret. I banished the knowledge of the shotgun to a dark corner of my mind. I knew that if I thought about the gun even a little, it would be too tempting to tell someone. In the end, it didn’t matter.

One day, my brother, Adam, brought a friend home from school. For Adam, this was like winning the lottery, and even before we got into the car he was acting manic: talking a mile a minute about the video games we had at the house, the types of junk food we were allowed to eat, everything and anything he could think of to impress this sixth-grade boy.

Adam had to keep the fun going; he had to keep this boy entertained. If he could keep one friend, then maybe he could have more, maybe he could even be a part of a group of boys, like a club, or maybe he could even be popular. The boy’s attention was waning. He was over the video games, over watching a movie, over the fart jokes, and over drinking all the Coca-Cola he could have. There was only one thing left Adam could think of to do: He could show off his dad’s biggest secret — his gun.

It went off.

Adam fired the gun at the wall, leaving a hole the size of a football. At the other end of the house, with the TV up loud, I didn’t hear a thing. But the guards heard it and sprang to action, radioing the embassy about a shooting.

We were asked to leave Kenya, and two weeks later we boarded a plane out of the country. In the American diplomatic community, the family is not a private entity — it is an appendage of our great nation. An embassy doesn’t just have expectations that their diplomats will be representatives of America’s finest qualities, but also that the families will reflect these values too. If a diplomat’s child or spouse does something “serious,” like commit adultery, smoke pot at school, spray graffiti, or fire off a gun, it is a permanent tarnish on their career record. Diplomatic immunity will mostly protect a diplomat from the host country’s legal system, but it does not protect him from his own country’s expectations.

We went to Egypt first to try to get back to being a family. Mom kept repeating that Adam shouldn’t feel guilty about this for the rest of his life. I thought, Does Dad feel guilty? Is anyone at fault here? Maybe there really is no one to blame, but when that gun went off, it shattered not only my father’s career but also the trust we had in each other as a family. After Egypt, we went to Ireland to stay with my maternal grandmother. Finally, we went to D.C., where Dad roamed the halls of the State Department looking for someone to see past this indiscretion. I thought Dad was going to work every day, but no, he was putting on a suit and tie to walk in and out of boardrooms in the State Department, trying to get anyone to listen and give him a job. Thankfully, someone did, and on my 12th birthday we landed in La Paz, Bolivia.

Before we left D.C. for Bolivia, my parents took us to Disney World. It was a big trip; we stayed in a Disney hotel and did all the parks. On the last day, we went back to Magic Kingdom, and us kids wanted one last spin on the scariest roller coaster, Space Mountain. My parents said that they couldn’t go again, but we could do it on our own if we wanted.

We had never gone on any of these rides unsupervised, and though it was Disney World and nothing bad could have happened to us, there was something thrilling and liberating about going on a roller coaster without our parents for the first time. We ran to the ride. We were told at the beginning of the line it was an hour wait, but when we got inside, the ride broke down and all the lights came on. It was shocking to see Space Mountain in the harsh fluorescent glow of the work lights. All its secrets were laid bare. It was the same feeling I would have years later when I walked into a bar in the morning to pick up a debit card I had left there the night before.

Half the crowd left the line after 15 minutes, but we decided to stay. We were stubborn, and a little frightened, but most importantly we had something to prove: to the ride, to Mom and Dad, and to ourselves — we could do this. We didn’t talk that much, or at least I don’t remember any of our conversations. But, I do know it’s one of the few memories I have of being at ease with my siblings.

Two weeks after getting to Bolivia, we would discover that the school system didn’t have the proper facilities for my brother’s educational needs, and he would have to go to boarding school. Eventually, my sister and I would go off to school as well, further distancing ourselves and creating more cracks in our fragile family unit. But, that day at Disney World, we didn’t understand yet that this year had caused permanent damage. We didn’t understand that it would always give us trouble, like a tiny piece of shrapnel left forever in a limb. All we knew for certain was we were going to ride Space Mountain, lights on or off.

Finally, we emerged from the tidal wave of families coming through the gates at Universal Studios. In spite of my mother shrinking in her old age, she walked with the grace of someone far taller than 5-foot-nothing. She looked like a fearless general leading a motley crew of underprepared soldiers into battle: Dad was drinking a Capri Sun from his neon fanny pack so that his blood sugar wouldn’t drop, my sister was talking on her cell phone, my brother was making out with his sullen girlfriend, and his two kids were already sticky with ice cream.

My niece and nephew eyed the roller coasters the same way I did when I was a kid. When I was 9 — finally big enough to go on the Anaconda, the first looping roller coaster in the world to feature an underwater tunnel — we went to Kings Dominion in Virginia. I looked at the hideous steel monster, and knew in my gut I had to ride it. I didn’t feel any excitement; I just knew I couldn’t let myself be the kind of person for whom life is a ride on a medium-size roller coaster like the Cyclone. The Cyclone’s not even an intimidating name. Even then, I was certain that riding the Anaconda would determine my entire identity and mark me for life.

It’s strange now to think about that impulse for danger. Why I felt the need to search for it in American amusement parks, when it already surrounded us in the most mundane of ways.

In 1998, two years after we left Kenya, the American Embassy there was obliterated by a car bomb. Two hundred and thirteen people were killed, including all of my father’s previous staff. Now, when I meet people I knew from Kenya, we ask each other about the bombing — were you there? What was it like? I have only a second-degree connection to the many people who were killed. Like so many parts of my life, the event feels like I should have some kind of ownership of it — and yet I don’t.

Now my niece, Aliyah, was begging to be taken on Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, where you sit in a log and float merrily along until the end when your log dives headfirst into a giant pool. Aliyah had to go on it. It was the longest line of the day. Up and down platforms we walked, winding in on ourselves, like cattle moving through a chute and track restrainer designed by Temple Grandin, but to what end? Everyone was sweaty and dirty; their emotional and physical exhaustion hung heavy in the air. No one was standing up straight; instead the crowd collectively shifted their weight from one foot to another. I was nauseous, and I couldn’t see an exit sign.

The mother standing in front of us put a hand on her son’s shoulder and trapped him in a complicated version of patty-cake. He was hooked on trying to get the rhythm right. The four of us watched, silently hoping he could make it to the next step. Aliyah was the most attentive. I could see the determination on her face; she had to figure the game out. My sister, Megan, said she thought she knew how to do it and pulled me in. We opened up the circle to include Aliyah, and all of a sudden Adam sauntered over to get in on the game as well. He wasn’t as quick as the rest of us, but Aliyah grabbed his hands and said, “Like this, daddy.” I stopped thinking of the smells emanating from the people in line. I stopped thinking of my wet socks. It was a rare and happy moment with my siblings. Each one of us was laughing. We were a team united against the line, the waiting, and the ride.

We were still giggling when we got off the ride, soaked to the bone — even me, in spite of the fact that everyone could now see my black panties through my wet white shorts. We made a beeline to the TV monitor where we could see the photo taken of us as we made the plunge. When it came up, all four of us had our hands in the air, and though there were smiles on Adam and Megan’s faces, Aliyah’s expression was pure joy — here was proof of how much she too enjoyed the danger.

It hit me then exactly what we had passed down to Aliyah and Desmond. For better and for worse, there was no escaping it: No matter how old we got, no matter how far away from our childhood, no matter when we even became part of the family, we were still, all seven of us, jonesing for that shock, for that possibility of disaster that lay hidden in every roller coaster, in every suitcase.